If you’ve ever met the Zia team at an event then you’ve probably noticed a couple things about us fairly quickly. We’re usually the loudest people in the room and we usually have the most colorful, uniquely themed trade show booth. Yes, we have a beautiful brand book that all new employees are required to review so they understand proper logo usage, pantone colors, messaging, and overall look and feel. However, we promptly throw that out the window when it comes to event planning and design.
The Zia team has two goals for in-person events like trade shows, lunch and learns, VIP experiences, and seminars. These are generating new leads and building relationships with existing customers and prospects. That is why our booths and signage are meant to stand out, create buzz, and make attendees curious enough to walk over and talk to us. “My coworker told me I had to come by and see this” is something we hear often. How do we know that our methods work? We generally scan at least twice as many badges per show as the booths on either side of us.
We also know that developing opportunities from events takes a lot more than an eye-catching display and fun giveaways. We focus on having meaningful conversations with attendees, listening carefully to what they tell us, and connecting their actual problems to our solutions. Then, we follow-up with a series of lead nurturing emails, piles of content and resources, opportunities to attend other events, and conversations with our incredible inside sales team. If Will has ever called you, you’ve had the first hand experience of his caring approach and tenacity!
Our company slogan is that we are “Content People” when really we are “People People.” Doing business requires treating employees, customers, and partners like family. We meet folks face-to-face, look them in the eye, and tell them what they need to hear instead of what they want to hear. This builds trust, highlights our expertise, and grows the business.
Business As Usual
We stay very busy and we know that we invest more heavily in marketing when compared to companies 10 times our size. After working at Zia for nearly a decade, developing our marketing plan for the upcoming year has become fairly streamlined and is completed by December. As part of this, we commit to attending a set of trade shows that we know close business. We also plan a number of events including things like partner events, lunch and learns in high-performing regions, seminars from trade organizations, and special events for our top customers and prospects. You can always ask me about our VIP tours at Disney World! Then, we sprinkle in our webinar series, digital content campaigns, target account-based programs, panel discussions, paid virtual events, blogs, case studies, partner programs, and more. All of our content is shared through social media with a focus on maximizing SEO and SEM. As you can see, marketing has become ingrained in the company culture and everyone in our organization contributes in some way. Individual contributions from the brilliant people at Zia are always appreciated.
Throw All Your Plans OUT
The 2020 marketing plan went to the team on January 8 and most of the plan was obsolete by March 15. In fact, my printed copy literally went in the trash can. Our entire world turned upside down and panic set in immediately. Trade shows were cancelled in a steady stream of email notifications from event planners. Partners notified us that their events would be virtual. Confirmed lunch and learns were cancelled by the restaurants we reserved. Guests contacted us hourly to share that they were no longer joining us. VIP events at sporting venues across the country were rescheduled for as far as 15 months later. Ultimately, over half of our entire marketing plan was gone within a week.
The marketing team spent a few days being upset. We had numerous zoom calls to check in with each other and talk about what to do. We drank a lot of wine. A lot. Then, we realized it was time to restructure and get back to achieving our goals. The next week we began rewriting our plan for the rest of the year. This was challenging as the news media changed the schedule for getting back to “normal” on a regular basis. First, it was “two weeks to slow the spread.” Then, one month became three months. Finally, I read a marketing-focused article that said not to expect in-person events for the rest of the year. I settled on this as I continued to write our new plan. The truth was, we wouldn’t hold another in-person event for over a year.
The first thought among several team members was to shift all of our time, messaging, and efforts to being educational rather than salesy. This was a global crisis that fundamentally changed the way most companies did business, including us. We wanted to share our knowledge, provide support and encouragement, and make it easier for people in their new work-from-home situation. As quickly as possible, we published a series of blogs posts related to new work issues, including Calm is Contagious, Zia’s COVID-19 Response, In Chaotic Times, Remember These Lessons, Leadership in Hard Times, Five-Step Leader’s User Manual for Uncertain Times, A Hero’s Welcome For Those Impacted by COVID-19, A Look at Zia’s Fully Remote Culture, and How Zia Works from Home—Tips and Tricks. These blog posts, written by several authors, continue to receive a great deal of traffic. This shows that this type of content is still valuable over a year later.
I was shocked by the number of people at Zia who stepped up and supported our efforts. The amazing Pat Myers came up with the idea of Ephesoft office hours, which we named Professor Pat. For eight weeks, Pat took time out of his very busy schedule to prepare hour-long lessons and answer questions for a global audience. Several folks attended all eight sessions and got free consulting from an expert.
We also created a free Digital Transformation Teachable Course to fulfill an initiative that was started a few months before lockdown. Initially, the team spent a great deal of time researching, developing, writing, designing, and fine-tuning onsite Digital Transformation Workshops to be delivered to customers in Q2 and Q3. When these were cancelled, the workshops were integrated into the online course. Not only was the content extremely valuable, we knew it was especially relevant as businesses were forced to transform in 2020. To date, over 100 people have completed the course and we’ve received very positive feedback.
In addition to shifting the way we delivered content, several Zia folks volunteered their time and donated to worthy organizations. They used their skills to help others who had lost their jobs, childcare, or basic necessities. As a team, we raised money for one of our favorite charities, Boulder Bridge House.
100% Virtual Events for a Company Full of People People
So, what did our new marketing plan look like? We knew we had to get creative as we expected our target market to be inundated with webinar invites. How could we stand out above all the noise? Working closely with our partners, we came up with several ideas to host unique virtual events with incentives. We were open to trying just about anything.
Our first task was to make our in-person events digital. We called people personally to say things like, “Hey, we had to cancel that private suite at the Indy 500, NHL game, TopGolf, or NBA game, but we still want to buy you lunch and talk to you on a group zoom call.” Poor Will had to make the majority of these calls! Of course, excitement was drastically reduced. Even still, people were very understanding and we hosted the best virtual events we could create. We kept the groups small, asked everyone to be on camera, answer questions live, and sent them a gift card to a meal delivery service so they had food during the meeting. This worked really well for the first couple of months and we generated some strong leads and opportunities. Eventually, zoom fatigue set in and people no longer wanted to actively participate. We saw fewer cameras going on and some folks wouldn’t even respond when we called on them directly. Awkward.
I myself felt the zoom fatigue. Virtual happy hours were fun, but after a while it began to mimic my workday so much that I stopped attending. I strongly believe that social events for work should be held outside of the office because I don’t want to go to work to hang out with my friends. This is how zoom events started to feel as I sat at the same desk in front of the same screen to socialize.
It was time for a new strategy! The next round of events went in the complete opposite direction. We shifted to getting as many people as possible to listen in on our webinars. Working with multiple partners, we recruited high-level executives to join panel discussions on topics directly related to the current situation. Over 400 people registered for our executive series on “The State of Digital Transformation and Automation in 2021” and “The New Frontier of Content Modernization” which featured executives from ASG, Ephesoft, JIFFY.ai, and Zia. Even though we did not expect anyone in the audience to participate, we got a steady stream of questions. Leads from these events were set directly to our nurturing and inside sales queue. In addition to attending both events, several folks downloaded additional content, joined another presentation, and answered their phone when we called.
During COVID, the marketing “best practices” I had always followed went out the window. Small, highly targeted campaigns didn’t work. Individual messaging was ignored. Vertical campaigns didn’t produce. I realized we needed broad messaging that spoke to the masses. We needed to invite everyone to everything, as we had no idea who would register. The typical rush of virtual event registrations two weeks in advance weren’t coming in anymore. But, I learned that a massive email and social push two days before an event drove big numbers.
In addition to hosting several webinars, virtual lunch and learns, and panel discussions, we participated in multiple virtual conferences and seminars. I put my team on video whenever I could. Between March 15 and December 15, Zia team members from sales, marketing, executive leadership, engineering, project management, and operations delivered over 55 presentations. Every person on our incredible sales team delivered at least five of these. I could not have been prouder of what we accomplished.
Converting Leads to Opportunities
I report weekly stats in our leadership meeting related to “A” lead generation, opportunities, pipeline generation, lead scoring models, and in-process leads. I like to set realistic goals and I like to win. Unfortunately, my reports were a catastrophe in Q2 2020.
For the last five years, we’ve seen a consistent rate of A leads to opportunity conversions and a consistent closed-won rate from marketing leads. We were used to knowing exactly how many A leads we needed to generate per quarter to hit our revenue numbers. Given the pandemic, all of our long-standing metrics were broken. On the plus side, we succeeded at meeting our A lead generation goals. However, these metrics may be a bit subjective because it is a lot harder to rank a lead without meeting in person and having a conversation.
Having prospects express interest and then tell us that their projects were getting put on hold became a major issue. A lot of our leads and customers immediately moved resources from content services projects to pandemic-related problems. They simply did have the funds, or the people, to do the kind of projects we executed. We reduced our goals because we knew that our lead conversion to opportunity rate would go down substantially. For a few weeks, our conversion rate was 0%. Trust me, that was not for lack of trying! We hit the phones harder than ever before and doubled the usual conversations. Companies just weren’t able to invest at that time.
More wine drinking ensued. It was a rough time for everyone.
Setting Up for the Future
We knew going into this that all of our hard work would not be for nothing. We knew that at some point the tide would turn and IT spending would pick up. It took about four months, but eventually projects started to come back. All of the presentations, nurturing, and outreach we had done made a huge difference. I saw our conversion rate to opportunities rise beyond the levels they had been previously. We are currently knocking it out of the park with multiple opportunities being generated per week, if not daily. I’m so proud of the persistence, dedication, and determination our team showed when they could have become frustrated or even given up.
Upon first glance, it would appear that we should adopt a completely virtual marketing strategy and stop spending money on live events. I was tempted to say this myself. However, when we drill into the opportunities, we notice something. Interestingly, 75% of the opportunities we’ve generated from marketing leads in the last year originated from previous in-person events. That’s huge! It tells me that the relationship-building, face-to-face work we do is effective over time. People still remember our loud talking, big smiles, and crazy trade show booths over a year later. What I deduce from this is that we need to get back to our original strategy. We need to get back on the road, while continuing to apply the lessons we learned during the pandemic.
In May, we hosted our first in-person VIP event with ASG Technologies at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. It was wonderful to be able to look our customers and partners in the eye, share a laugh, and have meaningful conversations again. It felt like coming home after being away for a very long time. Keep an eye out for the number of events Zia has planned in 2021. I can’t wait to see how they fuel our pipeline. Afterall, we are People People.